Jim Glennon: Their run is over, but Lam's men have given ailing Pro 12 a shot in the arm
Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30
Connacht have come a very long way, but Ulster in Belfast remains a bridge too far and their first success there since 1960 is still on their bucket list after Friday night's game, for another season at least.
The Pro12 League leaders, unbeaten in their last three away games and in six games overall, coming off the back of a home win against Leinster, faced a team who have won only one of their last four league games, and that was against Zebre.
Yet no matter how much form they have carried through the season, paper and history still counts for a lot. Their remarkable losing streak in Belfast now stretches back 55 years, and though the current group have broken new ground already this season in several fields, Ravenhill remains barren ground for them. To give that some context, Willie John McBride made his Irish debut in 1962, Jack Kyle having bowed out in 1958.
The comparison to Leicester City, or indeed Exeter Chiefs, in England's Premierships, may well be overplayed by now, but it is inescapable in that all three underdogs, all seemingly fated for implosion each time they take the field, have managed to sustain their challenge by sticking to their basic gameplan and believing in their own abilities, as well as those of their management.
Connacht's trip north was destined all season to be one of their most significant challenges, regardless of their league position. Injuries have been a significant factor all season for the most under-resourced of the provinces, and the current confinement to the treatment room of outhalves Jack Carty, Craig Ronaldson and AJ McGinty compounds the difficulties for Pat Lam as the season builds to an unprecedented climax.
In previous seasons, a lack of squad-depth and an inability to manage in the face of multiple injuries have been their undoing, and while they have succeeded in minimising similar fallout this season, entering the run-in to the play-offs with such a spate of injuries has to be a major problem.
It must also be stated however that, given the cohesion and flexibility with which Lam's squad have conducted themselves throughout the season, fourth-choice outhalf Shane O'Leary stepped up remarkably well on Friday and appeared comfortable in his first league start. Despite an out-of-sorts Bundee Aki at his side, O'Leary acquitted himself remarkably well, and Connacht supporters will be hoping he remains immune from the plague which has recently struck their number 10 jersey.
Ulster had their backs to the wall after a hugely disappointing loss in Glasgow. Chasing the play-offs from the outside as they now are, bonus point wins are of crucial importance. In this regard their inability to exploit total territorial dominance in the closing 10 minutes to score tries at home against an exhausted 13-man defence is ominous.
While their intent was visible from the off, and the return of Iain Henderson for his first home game of 2016 was again an obvious boon, it alone was never going to shock them into life. He did however, along with Roger Wilson, bring a palpable physical intensity to a pack of forwards hampered by the loss through injury last weekend of Alan O'Connor and Nick Williams.
Connacht, even with the off-tune Aki, relished the physical challenge. The confrontations in midfield between the Robb/Aki and McCloskey/Marshall combinations were well worth the watch - but once again Ulster's main men were Jared Payne and Paddy Jackson.
The full-back maybe slightly lacking in physique by current standards but is nonetheless an outstanding all-round rugby player and he played all his cards to outstanding effect, while the outhalf's combination with strangely subdued scrumhalf Ruan Pienarr was fundamental to everything Ulster did.
At home in Ravenhill particularly, Jackson seems to go about his business with real confidence. He's been one of the form players in the country this season. With Ian Madigan off to Bordeaux, Jackson will hope to step up to be Jonny Sexton's deputy, but it's debatable whether a three-test tour to South Africa is the optimum environment in which to develop his case for further recognition.
I wrote last week of some of the issues facing the Pro12 and it's difficulties as a brand or product. While those challenges haven't vanished overnight, nor will they, it must be said in fairness that what we've seen from Connacht since September, and especially in their two most recent outings, is a real shot in the arm for the ailing league. They are now box office and the key element of what's probably the most interesting and keenly observed conclusion the competition has ever seen.
Nor is it a west of Ireland fairytale either, but simple, and sweet, justification for those who railed against the IRFU's ill-conceived and misguided 2003 plan to abolish the province for professional rugby purposes and then rallied to ensure that the game in the west not only survived, but flourished.
The Irish franchises, as a group, may have fallen behind their European competitors, but three derbies over eight days, played out in front of packed houses at the Sportsground, Kingspan, and over 40,000 at Lansdowne Road last night, have shown that there are still a lot of positives around the game in Ireland which render it feasible, in conjunction with a small number of competitive fellow Celts, to provide a solid foundation from which a stronger league can be developed.
They may have fallen short again in their annual assault on the Ravenhill citadel, and they will be the outsiders of the Pro12's 2016 semi-finalists but, having received a lifeline themselves from the IRFU in recent years, Connacht may well have delivered one to the Pro12 competition in return.
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